I haven’t done many miles in the Defender this month. Two things stopped the wheels from turning as consistently as usual: KP72 YVV went back to base to have a tow bar fitted, which meant it was gone for a week; and, at roughly the same time, someone fitted me with something – a virus. And a nasty one at that, which turned me into a bed-bound wreck. Whoever that was: sharing isn’t always caring you know. However, I’ve done plenty of road miles in the Defender to date, so I thought I’d talk to you about those in the absence of any new adventures. After all, assessing the Defender’s on-road abilities was one of the key criteria of this long-term test.
I had a convenient yardstick, too. While the Defender was away, being accessorised, Land Rover dropped off the latest Range Rover Sport – a P530 V8 no less. I’ll be honest, I didn’t use that a great deal, either. (As I said, I was mostly dying that week.) But on the odd occasion that I popped out to see the doctor or pick up life-saving medical supplies, it was a useful bit of context. After all, lots of people love telling me that the current Defender is too, erm, ‘nice’ to be a proper work vehicle – a point I vehemently disagree with, by the way. So just how proper is the Defender in relation to a Range Rover these days?
Sitting in them, there’s a huge difference. The Defender is plush by traditional Defender standards, but that’s a meaningless standard. A Victorian mangle is plusher than the original Defender. But while the newer model is designed to look a bit rudimentary, it’s not really. Yes, it has body-coloured metal bits on the doors and exposed screw heads on the centre console, but that earthiness feels reverse-engineered rather than part of its DNA from conception. The rubber floor coverings, instead of soft carpets, could be seen as a genuine nod to its intended rough use – they do make life easier when you’re out and about in quagmired fields – but I’d say the true nature of where the latest Defender’s ethos lies is in our car’s part-white leather seats.
They signal that this Defender is meant to be comfortable and a little bit swish, which is fine. Personally, that’s what I want: a dual-purpose vehicle that works both on- and off-road. It’s what the original Range Rover’s brief was, and to me, the Defender is currently the car in Land Rover’s range that gets closest to it today. After all, the modern Range Rover, including the Sport, has moved way beyond the original in terms of luxury. A Range Rover’s price and opulence mean that you’d be mad to use one for serious hard labour. And the Sport that arrived in place of our Defender was opulent in the extreme. It was covered in cow skin from floor to ceiling, and that’s not an exaggeration. It had extended leather, which meant soft, semi-aniline hide on the seats, dash and door cards. Even the headlining was leather –it was the optional SV suede headlining, but that still counts.
The Sport has a much more intimate interior as well. Despite the enormity of the latest model, compared with the Defender it feels almost claustrophobic. It’s not actually small inside. This intimacy is deliberate – putting the sport in Sport – with the high-tide window line and elevated centre console making you feel cocooned. It’s amazing how quickly you get accustomed to something, though. I found myself longing to be back in the Defender. I much prefer its lighter look (the Sport was all black) but also the airiness of its cabin with the taller glasshouse letting in light and the outside world. I never unaccustomed myself from that viewpoint, either. That was a surprise, to be honest. I’m familiar with the Sport, having driven it quite extensively on the launch in Spain last year, so I knew what to expect. Yet, after living with the Defender for a while now, I didn’t quite gel with this Sport this time around.
And here’s another thing that surprised me: I prefer the Defender’s ride as well. This particular Sport was nobbled by gargantuan 23-inch wheels with painted-on tyres, but back in Spain last year I’d admired the Sport’s comfort. It was soft, but not as floaty as the big Rangie. Certainly, the Defender rides with a firmer edge, but that’s evident only over really pronounced ruts and ridges and it’s not punishingly hard. Plus, you don’t get the aftershocks – the post-bump reverberations that you get with the Sport. Now look, the roads around me are truly abysmal at the moment – far worse than anything I encountered in Spain last year – but the Sport’s crashiness over the crumbly bits got on my wick after no time at all.
Granted, the wheels and tyres will have played their part – the Defender’s tyres have much plumper sidewalls – but part of the difference is that the Defender seems much better damped. This is a side of the car that I’ve come to admire and enjoy. It makes the Defender more comfortable – although I can see some people arguing in favour of the Range Rover’s extra float. For me, I’m happy to take the slightly brusquer initial hits for a cleaner exit – the over-in-one control afterwards. It makes the ride quieter as well, and the Defender’s suspension isolation is genuinely impressive.
The strange thing is the damping also helps make the Defender sportier than the Sport, and I wasn’t expecting that at all. The Defender manages to hold onto its body so ably down an undulating country road that you begin to push on more than you thought you could. And once you’ve got over how well it copes with that pace, you push on a bit harder still and find it copes with that, too. The limitation is simply the all-season tyres, which run out of grip quite early and the overactive ESP abruptly cuts the power. In terms of the car’s set-up, though – what a Defender is expected to be dynamically on the road – it goes way beyond its remit. To the degree that I’m struggling to think of another true off-roader that can equal its black-top competence. In short, Land Rover’s aced it, but I’m not sure I’d say the same about the Sport. After all, its ability to handle a B road is a long way behind its rivals, such as the Porsche Cayenne.
I’m not getting carried away, mind. I’m talking relatively because the Defender isn’t outright sporty. Its steering is too slow for a start, and the steering wheel is almost classic-Benz big, but once you dial into it, the weight and precision are spot on. I know it’s a good setup because it achieves what all well-set-up cars do: I never think twice about my inputs. They occur automatically, whether that’s over a two-hour stint of straight-line motorway or pointing the big, blunt nose between corners on a country road. The Sport, meanwhile, has much quicker steering, which might suit its name but it’s a bit darty. In part, that’s because the rear wheels are steering as well, and at slow speeds that’s very much in the forefront of your mind. It delivers a tight turning circle but rather than working seamlessly in the background, it’s something I was very aware of. And I was very aware that I was thinking about my steering inputs in the Sport.
I’ll re-emphasise that I didn’t drive the Sport very far. Had I driven it farther, I might have acclimatised to its ways and those idiosyncrasies would’ve faded away. And some of the other ones, too, such as the lack of low-end torque from its 4.4-litre V8. I’m sorry, but the V8 just isn’t a patch on the D300 inline-six diesel in the Defender, which is so effortless – so sumptuously grunty – from idle onwards. But you can also have the D300 in the Sport, of course, and if you don’t choose that, or the pokier D350, you are mad. The only excuse for not doing so would be because it’s a company car, in which case opting for the hybrid would be totally understandable.
Of course, the truth of it is - and there’s no getting away from it at this point - that the Defender is getting under my skin. In a world often criticised for being flooded with the bland and banal, here’s a car that I look forward to getting into and going somewhere. The same cannot be said of every car that turns up at my door; actually, it applies to precious few of them. It’s the mark of something a bit special. So special, in fact, that I was thrilled the day it arrived back and they took the Ranger Rover Sport away.
Car: Land Rover Defender 110 D300 X-Dynamic HSE
Price as tested: £82,255
Options fitted: Air suspension Pack (£1,615), Advanced Off-Road Capability Pack (£1,070), Cold Climate Pack (£260), Electronic Active Differential with Torque Vectoring (£1,020), Three-zone Climate Control (£355), Air Quality Sensor (£60), Cabin Air Purification Plus (£285), Wi-Fi Enabled with Data Plan (£460), Secure Tracker Pro (36-month subscription) (£520), dealer-fit manual towbar and electrics (£1,600).
Run by: John H
On fleet since: April 2023
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